Indians Preview: Tyler Naquin Deserves a Shot to Build Off His 2019 Success
In a perfect world, the Cleveland Indians could spend 2020 finding fair opportunities for every member of their outfield hoard. As has been hammered home for months now, this summer’s campaign will be anything but perfect.
The Indians have plans for almost all of the ten outfielders gunning for a final roster spot, just 60 games to implement them and no minor league playing time available for those who draw the short straw. It’s an admittedly messy situation, one which further complicates the one area of Cleveland’s roster with the least amount of clarity.
These complications will likely force the Indians to scrap a few of the projects they had on tap this year. As a result, some outfielders will unfortunately see their opportunities limited or, worse, erased in the months ahead.
Tyler Naquin shouldn’t be one of those players.
While several members of the outfield face reduced playing time this year, Naquin has earned the right to build off the success he displayed in 2019.
It’s admittedly surprising to hear, especially considering how rocky things had been since his 2016 debut.
After landing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, Naquin endured significant setbacks in both productivity and his ability to stay on the field. He entered last season having played a combined 80 games over the previous two years, slashing .256/.287/.341 with a wOBA well below average (.272).
These struggles made it particularly difficult to expect much from Naquin heading into the 2019 campaign. They also made his sudden turnaround that much more surprising.
Buoyed by an absolutely torrid month of July (.439 wOBA, 175 wRC+), Naquin finished 2019 posting some of his best numbers in years. His overall slash line (.288/.325/.467), wOBA (.330) and ISO (.192) were the highest they’ve been since his rookie debut, while his strikeout rate (22.4%) reached a new low.
More importantly, Naquin saw notable improvement in his quality of contact.
2019 represents career bests for him in both average exit velocity (90.2) and barrel rate (9.0%). Naquin also dramatically increased his average launch angle (12.3), quite a welcome development after he spent the previous two seasons topping the majority of his batted balls.
One of the most significant highlights, though, was the improvement he displayed against a pitch which historically gave him the most trouble.
Fastballs have long been an issue for Naquin. He receives a steady diet of them every season, yet struggles to produce against the pitch.
That changed last season.
For the first time in Naquin’s career, he was able to generate an above average slugging percentage (.477) and wOBA (.340) against fastballs. His exit velocity (92.0) has never been higher, his launch angle (11) has never been better.
Add in the fact he hit more home runs off fastballs last year (7) than he had in the previous three years combined, and it would seem Naquin is turning the corner with his least favorite pitch.
While the offensive rebound Naquin put forth was reassuring, it was his defensive improvement which deserves the most attention.
Posting career highs in defensive runs saved (9) and ultimate zone rating (9.7), 2019 was by far Naquin’s best season in the field. Not only was his defensive runs above average the highest it’s ever been (6.1), it was also a number topped by only 13 outfielders last year.
Though it ended with a late August ACL tear, the 2019 season was a bounce-back Naquin badly needed. It also serves as reason to place him high on the list of Indians outfielders vying for playing time this summer.
Make no mistake, ensuring Naquin gets enough plate appearances isn’t as easy as it sounds. Doing so will potentially mean shelving several plans Cleveland had for 2020, whether it be allowing Jake Bauers time to fix his plate approach, finding opportunities for Daniel Johnson and Greg Allen, or letting Jordan Luplow prove himself against right-handed pitching.
However, it’s fair to say Naquin has earned his fair share of innings this year. His 2019 performance should ensure he doesn’t fall by the wayside so the team can effectively tackle as many outfield projects as possible in 60 games.
Again, in a perfect world, determining which outfielder sees his respective plans tabled for 2020 isn’t something the Indians would have to deal with this summer. However, this is the hand they’ve been dealt.
Now, Cleveland needs to figure out whose playing time is about to be reduced. After what he displayed last year, it’s fair to say Naquin’s innings shouldn’t be on the chopping block.